For almost as long as Vladimir Matyushenko can remember, he has dreamt of making his living as a martial artist.
At age 10, Matyushenko, who was born and raised in Belarus, first tried his hand at wrestling.
From there, it didn’t take long for Matyushenko to fall in love with the sport.
In the world of amateur wrestling, Matyushenko not only found an outlet for his energy and something he was truly passionate about, but also a means to experience life beyond Belarus.
Inspired by the liberty that North America offered, elements of the continent’s popular culture and his adventurous spirit, Matyushenko crossed the Atlantic Ocean and made California his new home in his mid-20s.
“I had no idea what I was going to do (when I came to America),” Matyushenko, 40, recently explained to Bleacher Report. “Wrestling didn’t pay much, because I didn’t have the credentials—although I did graduate from college, eventually—to go and coach. I did dishwashing, cleaning, lumberjacking, construction—everything just to survive and pay my bills.”
At 26, Matyushenko—in perhaps one of the few jobs he had yet to try at that point—first tried his hand at mixed martial arts.
“I saw a few of the first UFCs, with (Ken) Shamrock and Royce Gracie, and I thought that I could do it,” Matyushenko, a long-time wrestling instructor, recounted. “When I had the opportunity, I did it.
“I didn’t know much about grappling—I knew a bit about the chokes and the striking—but my spirit was there and I did it.”
Matyushenko’s first foray in the sport was a single-evening tournament in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in September of 1997. Despite his inexperience, Matyushenko claimed submission victories over Vernon White, Robert Lalonde and Anthony Macias en route to winning the tournament.
According to Matyushenko, it didn’t take long to realize that he could potentially excel as a mixed martial artist.
After more than a decade in the sport, in which he has contested 10 bouts in the Octagon, fought for a UFC championship and gained the respect of fans the world over, the light-heavyweight contender appreciates being called a pioneer of the sport.
“I would say (I’m a pioneer of the sport),” Matyushenko, who has fought in Canada, Germany, Japan and the United States, said with a chuckle. “I’m one of the oldest guys left. I like when people call me that.”
Although Matyushenko is happy with what he’s been able to accomplish on the canvas so far, the former IFL star isn’t done with the sport just yet.
On December 30th, Matyushenko, who has registered 14 victories in his past 16 outings, is to square off against Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 141 in Las Vegas.
Regardless of the outcome of his upcoming contest (“you always plan to win,” he said with a laugh), Matyushenko emphasized that he has plans to compete in the sport in the coming year and, perhaps, beyond.
“I think 2012 is going to be a good year,” Matyushenko offered. “People ask me how much longer I’d like to fight, but I really don’t know—I really can’t say.”
When he does walk away from professional competition, Matyushenko won’t be traveling too far from the cage. The man they call “The Janitor,” who owns a martial arts academy in California, intends on continuing his coaching career.
Three decades after first trying his hand at wrestling, these days Matyushenko can’t help but reflect on how important the influence of athletics has been in his life.
“That’s what built me and made me who I am,” explained Matyushenko, who was married in 2011. “I have no idea (where I would be without athletics). I am so, so glad that I did it. It’s taught me so much.
“It created me and developed me as a person.”